The Labour conference underlined just how right wing the party’s leaders have become.They are for war, neo-liberalism and for preventing real debate.
The Conference Arrangements Committee ruled out of order all 27 motions calling for a discussion on the party leadership – the issue that dominated delegates’ conversations all week.
It also barred motions opposing the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. There was no proper debate on Iraq or Afghanistan. And it is worth remembering just how right wing was Tony Blair’s final speech to conference as leader.
He unflinchingly defended going to war alongside George Bush. He criticised previous Labour governments for being too slow to bring in Tory policies such as anti-union laws and the selling off of council homes.
But he went much further. He defined the next election as a battle where Labour’s central critique of the Tories would be that they are too liberal.
Any Labour supporter, any Labour member, should read what Blair said and shudder:
“David Cameron’s Tories? My advice – get after them. His foreign policy is to pander to anti-Americanism by stepping back from the US.
“His immigration policy? He says he’ll sort out illegal immigration, but opposes identity cards, the one thing essential to do it.
“His energy policy? He says he will use nuclear power ‘only as a last resort’.
“And his policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should put her arm round him and give him a nice, big hug.”
Blair wants to out-Tory the Tories on war, nuclear power, civil liberties, immigration and being nasty to young people. It might be argued that Blair is going and his successor will be different.
But there was precious little sign of that in Manchester. Gordon Brown praised a series of principles that Blair had “taught us”.
These included, “We can’t just be pro-Labour, we’ve got to be pro-business too. The renewal of New Labour must and will be built upon these essential truths: a flexible economy, reformed and personalised public services, public and private sectors not at odds but working together.
“And Tony you taught us something else – and once again you saw it right, you saw it clearly and you saw it through; that the world did change after September 11th. That no one can be neutral in the fight against terrorism and that we – Britain – have new international responsibilities to discharge.
“And let us be clear: the renewal of New Labour will be founded on that essential truth – the need for global cooperation in the fight against terrorism, never anti-Americanism.”
Brown also showed how low he would go to continue the true faith of New Labour by backing NHS privatisation and defending bosses who murder their workers.
He intervened at the party’s national executive to stop it supporting one motion against health sell-offs and another in favour of jail sentences for company bosses convicted of corporate manslaughter.
He reportedly denounced the T&G union’s “crazy demands”.
Brown persuaded two executive members to change their votes at the last minute. As a result, the leadership won by 16 votes to 15 on each motion – although they then lost both on the conference floor.
As for home secretary John Reid, he has spotted that there is a niche for populist demagogy around crime, immigration and security.
He relentlessly played on this in his conference speech and berated the Tories because they “end up talking tough, voting soft and hoping no one will notice.” Reid gloated that Tory leader Cameron had found his policies too extreme.
The Sun, which generally is favoured with top tips from Downing Street, said Number 10 was pleased that Reid did not just stick to his home affairs brief as Blair’s coterie “are desperate for a strong Blairite candidate to take on Mr Brown”.
How did delegates react to all this? On the one hand there were defeats for the leadership in important debates (see Anger and dissent on the floor).
On the other hand almost all of the hall rose to cheer Blair’s farewell speech and to join in the nine minutes 13 seconds standing ovation, despite his bloody record.
And it’s also true that on several issues the constituency section of the conference supported the leadership in crucial debates.
The motion defending council housing was passed, but only 44 percent of constituency votes supported it.
Some union leaders did give a voice to the feeling against Blair, but they did not use their votes to force a debate on Iraq or the leadership.
As one delegate told Socialist Worker, “The majority of people here want a less right wing policy. But they want to win elections more, and Blair has at least delivered that. Most think the Labour Party is the only game in town, and therefore in the end unity comes first.”
And in any case ministers made it abundantly clear that last week’s votes at conference will not change policy one iota. They will try to ignore the defeats on housing, the NHS and the rest, just as they did over pensions, foundation hospitals, renationalisation of rail and much else in the past.
The formal debate over the leadership and deputy leadership will mostly pit one right-winger against another. But it is far from unimportant. Underneath it is a tumult of discussion in the working class movement, with even more Labour Party members dropping out or resigning and new opportunities and challenges opening up for those outside the Labour Party.
It is a chance for the left. Arguments over the future of the Labour Party create a debate about what sort of policies we need, but also about whether the change we need can come from inside the Labour Party at all.
For example, when former Blairite loyalists wrote to Blair to demand that he steps down, or when Clare Short spoke out against Blair’s policies in the run up to the Labour conference, it helped to open a wider debate about the future of the left in Britain.
Both inside and outside the Labour Party, the arguments over the leadership and direction of the party create opportunities to put forward a real alternative to Blairism and all Blair’s works.
That task is urgent. Blair won acclaim for his performance last week, but he is a political husk. It will not be long before the voices calling for him to go become deafening again.
And the Labour Party itself remains in crisis. As left MP Jeremy Corbyn puts it, “Membership is now well below 200,000 – an almost historic low – and in many areas the local parties are shells with no activity.”
The prospect of “reclaiming Labour” looks more distant than ever. Respect has a serious chance to grow. The 50,000 who demonstrated outside the Labour conference before it began, and those who have taken part in similar mobilisations must discuss how to shape a political force outside Labour.
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching